Belfast Telegraph

Drinks night axed after parties reject Bradley invitation

Karen Bradley
Karen Bradley
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

A summer drinks reception tonight for MLAs hosted by the Secretary of State has been cancelled after Northern Ireland's five main political parties all said they wouldn't attend.

Sinn Fein, the DUP, Ulster Unionists, Alliance and the SDLP turned down their invitations. Hosted by Karen Bradley at Stormont House, the event was to give them an opportunity to socialise alongside the ongoing talks.

In a statement last night, the government said Mrs Bradley respected "that the parties have concluded they are not ready for this yet".

An SDLP spokesperson said: "We're focused on the talks. The public wants us working to secure a return to government rather than attending drinks receptions."

An Alliance spokesperson said: "There remains a lot of work to be done in the talks process and the party will be concentrating on that instead."

The DUP, Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionists all said they wouldn't be attending the event either.

TUV leader Jim Allister, who also received an invitation from Mrs Bradley, said: "I have no intention of attending.

"When the Secretary of State came to office (last January), I wrote to her requesting a meeting.

"No such meeting has yet taken place. I have no intention of going to social events such as this when the Secretary of State cannot do the courtesy of a meeting to discuss political issues".

A government spokesperson said the Secretary of State had thought it would be helpful to "bring together MLAs for an informal event alongside the ongoing talks process".

The spokesperson continued: "This was part of the drive to make the process more inclusive, beyond those who sit around the talks table, and to help build relationships ahead of the restoration of the Assembly.

"As she has said, her top priority is to bring the talks to a successful conclusion, and (the) event was intended to be a further step on that road.

"The Secretary of State respects that the parties have concluded they are not ready for this yet.

"The event will therefore not take place."

Sinn Fein has said that the talks, which began last month, should not be suspended for the summer.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann told the Belfast Telegraph that the discussions were "stuck in no-man's land at the minute".

He said they were "trapped between the working groups and actually getting down to real and meaningful" negotiations.

"Unless things begin to start moving soon, any steam that was built up may evaporate completely and we'll be back to square one," he said.

"Parking this process won't do any good. There'll never be an ideal time to try and reach agreement, so we should push on.

"The Secretary of State may have been intending to help the talks move to a more meaningful stage by getting all the MLAs together, but that boat has now sailed. It's time to get political leaders together for some hard political graft instead."

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said there was no reason that a deal to restore power-sharing could not be done this week.

"However, people need to be prevented from wanting to play a longer game with this process," he said.

"The consequence of continued deadlock is the long-term erosion of public services and the economy.

"Creativity is now needed to address the issues, and to provide the necessary reforms to restore and sustain the political institutions here."

Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill told the BBC on Sunday that so far the negotiations have involved "tinkering round the edges" without confronting the main issues preventing agreement.

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